Motivation was no problem a year ago when the San Francisco 49ers responded to the "repeat" question asked of all champions. Their desire to prove they were more than pawns manipulated by ex-coach Bill Walsh was a tangible thing.
Matt Millen was in his first season with the Niners, but there simply was no mistaking the driven feeling of his new teammates. "I felt that very much," the veteran linebacker said recently of the anti-Walsh sentiment pervading the previous training camp.
The 49ers left no doubt of their status as the Team of the '80s as quarterback Joe Montana led them to a 17-2 record that included three playoff victories by a cumulative margin of 100 points (126-26).
Now, the question is: "Three-peat?"
This year, the 49ers realize they must dig a little deeper for motivation. They have exchanged the very real feeling of Walsh looking over their shoulders for the more nebulous goal of chasing the ghost of the 1965-67 Vince Lombardi Packers, the only team to win three consecutive NFL championships. If they do it, the 49ers also would break their tie with the Steelers of the 1970s and become the first team to win five Super Bowls.
Can the Niners take history and shape it to their will, or is that asking too much? "That's the question," Millen said. "The only thing I can say is that I can feel an awareness that we have a chance to make history, and that's all you can ask."
By nature, most athletes are creatures of the here and now. They take 'em one game at a time. Ask about the past, and they often say with disdain, "That's history." So, the simple awareness of the chance to make history doesn't necessarily translate into the same urgent need the 49ers had to validate themselves last season.
"I'm sensing that," offensive lineman Harris Barton said of the more relaxed approach. "We're missing a lot of guys in camp. But you figure six months down the road, we could be world champions and part of the greatest team ever to play. You know, $64,000 (the Super Bowl winner's share) is nothing. The money is gone, not important. But the opportunity to be part of history is important. We'll see what happens."
Barton literally is at the center of one of the 49ers' problem areas -- the offensive line. The most versatile of their linemen, Barton has shifted to center while starter Jesse Sapolu stages a hold-out. Pro Bowl guard Guy McIntyre also is a holdout, which means the group that protects the franchise, Montana, is in a severely weakened state.
But a check of recent history reveals the Niners were concerned about their offensive line last year, too, because Sapolu was moving from guard to replace retired center Randy Cross. After a very shaky first five games, the offensive line kept improving and allowed only two sacks in the playoffs.
Contract problems are nothing new, either. Defensive lineman Kevin Fagan, linebacker Charles Haley and safety Chet Brooks all are unsigned, but the 49ers had even more starters out of camp a year ago. All the big guns are in uniform. In fact, Montana agreed over lunch last week to a four-year deal worth at least $13 million, making him the highest-paid player in the NFL. As a bonus, all the draft picks were signed and in camp on time.
The front office also thoughtfully has provided quality depth via Plan B, including nose tackle Fred Smerlas and defensive backs Dave Waymer and Hanford Dixon. Last year, they signed Plan B wide receiver Mike Sherrard and let him spend the season rehabilitating a broken leg. Now he's ready to step in as the third receiver behind Pro Bowlers Jerry Rice and John Taylor.
"We keep adding on and bringing players in," Rice said. "Sherrard will help us a lot."
As for the grind of winning six playoff games the past two seasons, the 49ers are as refreshed as they can be. Owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. paid for a lavish one-week team vacation in Kauai, Hawaii, where the players received their Super Bowl rings and were serenaded for three hours by Huey Lewis and the News.